Called to Say- Marija’s Story

I met Marija twice. The first time when I was working as a property surveyor around Hamtramck. I took pictures of properties and recorded data from the sidewalk. I saw this eager woman with a strong accent standing on her porch and, before I knew it, she was dragging me by my upper arm into her front door so she could show me her water bill. Way too high, apparently. She asked me if I had a boyfriend and said I was “mental sick” when I said “no.” I loved her accent and her intimate aggressiveness. She was a funny stranger who made an impression, and that was it.

The same day that I met Marija, I met another memorable person the next street over. Strange story short- his house became my house when I moved in 18 months later. I’d forgotten all about Marija until I saw that stocky old-world frame standing at the fence of my new backyard one sunny day. Once I heard that incredible accent again, I knew she was the woman with the water bill!

She was a neighbor in the truest sense, we talked about our homes, our yards, our bills, my cat, our other neighbors. When I stopped by, she would usually be watching a game show on TV. When she came to my house, I was usually working harder than she thought was reasonable and she would remind me that I really was mental sick.

She was the stereotypical fretful grandma, clucking at me for unknowable offenses and even getting mad about things that really didn’t affect her, like my lack of a hat on a cold day. She had a temper and she often aimed it at me, but I liked her friendship more than I minded her harshness. I’d just let a few weeks go by until some neighborly topic cropped up or I happened to walk by her door, and we’d be back at it again. I wasn’t the only one she was hard on- I’ve never been in a place of business with Marija where she didn’t extract some kind of deal from the workers or the customers. Thanks for the free coffee, Marija!

I know exactly why I loved her. She instantly helped to make my new house a home. She was part of the infrastructure of my growing community. It meant everything to know that she was there and that she cared. I saved many of the voicemails that she left me because I just loved the way she sounded and what she had to say.

Sometimes, on a drive to the Comcast store, or a visit to Randazzo for discount produce (and free bananas), Marija would tell me about her life.

Marija spent her first twenty-something years in Macedonia. She had a hard home-life because her mother abandoned the family when Marija was only 4 years old and her sister was just 1. Mom left to chase a man who was chasing a life in America. Her father remarried and the family lived in a cold one-room home. Marija eventually went to college and paid her way by feeding pigs and picking tobacco.

At a party one night, a man asked her to dance and she agreed. He offered her a ride home, but, instead he took her across the border to Serbia, violently raped her, and trapped her in his home. He threatened her with guns, he threatened that if she left he’d find her and kill her. At some point in her captivity, they married. Eventually, she gave birth to a son. That one night led to 25 years together in a tortured, abusive relationship based on captivity.

One time, I walked by her house and popped in to say hi. She answered the door with a phone tucked against her ear and panic in her eyes. She shoved the phone at me and pleaded for help. It was AT&T, and she needed a translator. I thought “how lucky that I happened to stop by at just this moment!” Then I realized this call had already been going on for 90 minutes. All Marija wanted to do was switch from DirectTV to AT&T and save a few bucks every month, but now she was wrapped up in the insidious game of senior entrapment that is the cable industry. Marija didn’t need many channels or wifi, and she definitely didn’t need to be paying $200 a month. Then again, she couldn’t go one single day without her shows.

I took the phone and stepped in, trying to close the deal. The woman on the phone was asking for Marija’s social security number and trying to get her to accept a free iPad that would end up costing an additional monthly service charge. I couldn’t believe how hard it was! I couldn’t believe how they trip up little old ladies with broken English who just want to watch The Price Is Right. We finally got it figured out.

When Marija’s husband came to America, she followed him, and the family lived in Detroit across the street from a bar her husband owned. She had family in the states (including her Mother), but she rarely saw any of them.

Every day, all day, she worked at the bar. She was his servant, maybe his slave. She cooked, cleaned, served, and did accounting work. She was not paid. She was not allowed to speak to men, she had no control over how she spent her time, she did was he said and got beaten anyway. She raised their child. She once tried to register for an English class but was beaten for being gone for 1 hour so that was the end of it. Instead, she learned English by listening to the soap operas and game shows on TV.

If she protested about anything, her husband would threaten to have her kicked out of the country alone. In other words, she would lose her son if she didn’t obey her husband.  Everything Marija endured was for her son. He was her reason for living and she would never leave him the way her mother left her. 

The bar was a favorite pit-stop for the Detroit Police, who ate and drank for free. They were a constant reminder to Marija that if she ever turned to the law for protection against her husband, they wouldn’t be on her side. When her husband shot her in the leg, she had no one to call. When the beating caused her to miscarry what would have been their second child, she suffered alone. 

The only male customer Marija was allowed to talk to was a Polish gentleman who was apparently so old that he wasn’t seen as a threat. Marija called him “Grandpa.” He seemed to be the only one who saw or cared about how she was treated. Grandpa arranged for Marija to apply for citizenship, and they lied to her husband, telling him that Grandpa had an appointment with the immigration authorities and that he needed Marija to vouch for him, rather than the other way around.

Marija sat through an interview where only English was spoken. She fumbled through the answers, and was sure she had failed. When the questioning was over, her interviewer escorted her out into the hallway and asked her in their native language why she wanted to be a citizen. They were from the same town! She was in shock, and explained that she wanted to be able to protect her and her son from being separated. Marija left there that day with US citizenship for herself and her son. When Marija’s husband found out, he got his gun out, like usual, and shot at them, but Marija and Grandpa weren’t hurt and she couldn’t be blackmailed any more. 

When I first met her, it didn’t occur to me to wonder how she came to be a homeowner, it was just the way it was. I didn’t understand how incredibly improbable it was, given her history. The story of her terrible marriage came to an end when Marija came home to find her husband in bed with the woman who sang at the bar. That woman was pregnant. Marija’s husband kicked out the woman and cut off all contact with her and Marija did the same to him. For some reason, that was the last straw. Their son was already grown and out of the house, and Marija left too.

She escaped to the basement of her cousin’s house and hid out for 6 months to avoid detection. He husband tried to bribe the nephews to tell on her and made false accusations to the police to try to get her arrested, but he never found her. 

It outraged Marija that he claimed she had stolen from him! He was the one who took her life, stole her labor for decades, ended the life of their child and nearly hers too. Marija claims her husband owed her $450,000 from the work she put into the bar, but eventually, she let it go because she couldn’t win with him and the fight wasn’t worth it to her.

She got a restraining order. She searched for jobs in the newspapers while she hid out in the basement. She cleaned houses or helped with childcare 6 days a week with a Jewish organization. Grandpa taught her to drive. Over time, she borrowed money from her employer to buy a home in Hamtramck and borrowed money from Grandpa to buy a used car.

When her ex-husband saw her new home, he accused her of being a whore- what man bought this for you? He took a bat to her car she was still learning to drive. She held firm.

Most of the time, she was a wonderful neighbor. The kids on the block called her the Candy Lady because she gave out treats every single day as they walked home from school.

But she was also hard to love. In the time I knew her, it seemed that Marija lost friends often. My roommates and friends often cycled quickly in and out of her favor. She would say blunt mean things and other people just didn’t have enough baseline affection for her to overlook those cruelties.

Once, she told me there had been a little toddler walking down her sidewalk all alone the day before. He was a little Yemeni boy whose family lived a few houses down. For religious reasons, the child’s mother wasn’t allowed to leave the home unattended, so Marija scooped the kid up and brought him back home. Then, she put the kid down and started beating his mother. “What makes you think it’s ok to hit your neighbor like that? That’s not right!” I said. I didn’t understand why someone who had lived with the limitations imposed by men would understand what it might be like for that woman, but she was just worried about the kid. “He could be kidnapped,” she said.

Everything about Marija makes a little more sense when you know where she’s coming from. How, in her world, beating is a form of communication. How, in her world, kidnapping is a real and a permanent thing. How, in her world, it’s worse to lose access to TV than to get in a fight with a friend. And how caring for the children in your neighborhood sometimes involved violence to their parents. It’s maybe a little mental sick, but at least it’s understandable.

The calls with the doctor were so much harder than the one with AT&T. It was scary and confusing and expensive and the medical terms only made the language barrier so much larger. Marija had a diagnosis of “pre-cancerous cells” in her uterus and wasn’t sure what to do. She got multiple opinions and I thought she was going to wait and see how it developed, but Marija was only 73 and had only just started her real life, so she opted for the most aggressive chemotherapy course available. 

The doctor’s visits made her too weak to drive so she needed help from friends and neighbors to get to her appointments.


One day, I came to her house and she barely opened the door. The top left half of her body was covered in one massive bruise. One fall did that to her. For weeks, she had to light candles instead of going to church because no one could see her like that.

For a while, I didn’t hear from Marija. I don’t think she was mad at me or that I was mad at her, but I can’t remember. I think I stopped by on a walk or two, but didn’t leave a note or knock for very long. I was busy and there was nothing urgent to talk about. I finally got a call from Marija and discovered that she was living with her son in another town.

A few weeks prior, she had fallen. It was a big one this time, and she couldn’t get up. She laid on the ground for three days until her son found her there. She couldn’t live alone anymore.

We talked a couple times, she sounded unhappy and caged up in someone else’s house. She was constantly in pain. The chemo was over but what was left? Marija and I called back and forth a few times. It wasn’t the same.

A call from a strange number turned out to be a voicemail I never wanted to get. Marija’s son, Nick, let me know his mom was dead. To make it worse, she had died a few weeks prior. I missed her funeral, I missed the chance to say goodbye. After all of it, she gave her whole life, and she’s gone without a trace.

I didn’t get to say goodbye, but I have something that no one else has. I have her story. 

Marija had told me her story so many times, but just to me. I thought other people should hear it. And Marija agreed to tell her history for StoryCorps when they came to Detroit. At that time, she was very weak, and we had to pause multiple times just to make it from the car to the little booth 20 feet away.

She repeated the story about her childhood, her marriage, her immigration, and her emancipation. She is ashamed that she didn’t leave her husband sooner. But, more than anything she is proud that she never left her son. At the end, she said “I’m so happy now, believe me.”

Marija, I hope this story honors you.

Your memory lives on in your neighbors, in your son, and through his family.

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